Monday, May 25, 2015

Review of The Obituary Writer by Ann Hood (And Thoughts About Lady Books)

After I graduated from college, I worked at a large chain bookstore for a short time. I learned many things about bookselling, including The Customer Is Likely Crazy and Strollers Are Used For Stealing. One thing I learned that offended my bookish sensibilities is that when mass market paperbacks (the little ones) don’t sell, many bookstores rip off the the covers and return them for a refund. The books themselves go into the trash.

(As a side note, this process is called Book Stripping. I wondered if the employees with this responsibility were called Strippers.)

Since this chain bookstore was huge, there was a dumpster full of books going into the garbage weekly. Sometimes I would fish out some of the more appealing ones for myself, which was technically theft.  Something Blue, Ann Hood’s fourth novel, was one of the books I dug out of….er…stole from the trash.

I just recently sat down with another Hood novel, this one acquired legally.  The Obituary Writer has been sitting in my leaning stack for years, and I decided to read it as part of the 2015 TBR Pile Challenge. I’m glad I did, because this was a quick and easy read at a time when I feel mired in enormous books that never seem to end.

This novel offers a close look at the grief experienced by two characters – Claire, a 1960s suburban housewife, and Vivien, whose true love vanished in the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco. Hood is masterful at writing about the texture of grief. Her characters show us different forms of grief: grief at the loss of a lover, the loss of a parent, the loss of a child, and the loss of the self. They also allow us to consider different questions: What role does hope play in survival? What is the difference between hoping and pining? If the truth is terrible, would you rather be ignorant?

One of the things I most appreciate about this novel is the historical detail (Mad Men fans, take notice!). Hood has decorated her novel so precisely that we see the pattern on Claire’s living room wallpaper and we taste Vivien’s salad. These details give a time-specific quality to some of the characters’ experiences of grief (e.g. spiritual death via suburban ennui; death from an influenza epidemic…). But Hood is also exploring the universal idea of grief, as a ritual and as a potential trap.

There were many good things about The Obituary Writer. I genuinely liked it. But it skates on the edge of a literary phenomenon that drives me crazy: it is being marketed as “Women’s Fiction” (I say that it “skates on the edge” because we DON’T get a glass of chardonnay and a pedicure when we buy it. Too bad??). Women’s Fiction is a commercial category, a box, and I think the box constrained Claire and Vivien. In this case, Hood took these wonderful, well-drawn characters and tried to place them into the plot of a Lifetime Movie of the Week (i.e. “something good” has to come of tragedy; loose ends must be tied up within two hours; the audience sheds “good tears,” preferably in a community of other women). Once the book was in the Lifetime Movie box, the publisher added goofy reading group questions. I’m surprised there weren’t roses and chocolate, too.

The Lifetime Movie strategy at play here involves the “mystery” of how Vivien and Claire are connected. This is a mystery that is solvable at the outset, especially by anyone who has watched a Lifetime Movie of the Week. Rather than being a natural and surprising plot element, this connection serves to wrap up the novel in a bow at the end (foreshadowed by the question, “What does Vivien have to teach Claire…?”). For me, the problem with the neat bow, the “lesson learned,” is that it presumes that female readers can’t handle the real messiness of living life.

It is interesting that male authors’ readers don’t seem to require the same coddling. Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín is another book about a woman’s grief and the impact it has on her family. Tóibín, like Hood, focuses on the small details of life after a loss. But the publisher doesn’t attach questions to the end of that novel. Readers aren't asked, “…[D]o you find that sharing stories helps people process emotion and come to terms with grief?”

Clearly, the correct answer to that question is “yes.” Hood herself might be best known for sharing the story of the death of her young daughter and her experiences with adoption. Her nonfiction writing is searing. You can find an essay she wrote about those events here.
*The photo of books coming out of the window is from the Hague's Meermanno Museum. 

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